INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN LEBON
DPRP’S ROGER TRENWITH
I am delighted to be chatting with Alain Lebon, founder of the truly eclectic Soleil Zeuhl label, the home of the recent wonderful re-release of Dün’s Eros, and a label which has been releasing esoteric avant-prog and other delights since 1998.
Roger: Hi Alain, and thanks for taking the time to talk with DPRP. What made you decide to start the label all those years ago?
Alain: Basically I was a disappointed fan because a lot of records I wanted to buy on CD had not been reissued yet and I didn’t see any motivation around from the labels devoted to prog for doing so. So, step by step, I finally decided to go ahead and create my own label. But when doing so, I had no idea whether that would be the start a long story or just a single-release-label, quickly forgotten. By luck, the very first release (the CD reissue of Archaïa) was a success, probably because that record was featured on the famous Nurse With Wound list – which I was not aware of at first, I discovered that a few months after the release. This success made possible further projects. In retrospect, it’s been a major coincidence because if that first production had been a massive failure, I’m not sure there would have ever been a follow-up… Thanks to Mr Steven Stapleton
Alain: Organisationally, the label is a non-profit entity. As there is no staff to pay, it allows the launching of low-sales projects. The money from the sales is used for paying the past expenses and, if there is a profit, it is used for financing future releases – allowing for occasional losses. It started with my own money, now 14 years later the label has become financially independent from its creator. The artists receive royalties and, maybe most important, they remain the sole owners of the copyright. Back in 1998, I did apply the same rules Robert Fripp had applied to DGM (a strong inspiration for our license contracts with the artists). The sole possession the label is the manufactured stock. Musically, the basic idea was to gather the numerous bands clearly influenced by Magma – hence the name of the label. Something that Gorgio Gomelski had briefly started to do in the mid-70s, under the name “Utopia”, but it never came to anything; too bad because that was a much better period for launching such a project than now! Over the years, I slowly realised that what all these bands shared was not only Magma but (maybe overall) early 20th century classical music. Politically, the total non-profit organisation was obviously a necessity in 1998, without much ideology involved back then. Right now the necessity is still there but I would add a heavy dose of philosophical attitude, being fed-up by the contemporary liberal economy where profit is the sole motivation. Nowadays, running SZ has become a breath of fresh air, an escape from the toxic financial atmosphere of our era. It is also reminiscent of the DIY attitude from the punk area – I was 18 in 1977 and at that time I spent a lot of time in London, not really involved into what was going on but watching & absorbing the (short-lived) ideology.
Roger: That makes you the same age as me, and I’m always amazed when I meet someone our age who is either British or was in the UK at the time on whom the punk revolution had no apparent effect. What were they doing? The tired and jaded music scene prior to punk certainly needed the hefty kick in the pants it got from punk!
Alain: I was a student, in Normandy, in a town close to the Channel, so it was easy and cheap for me to travel to London. Between 1978 and1985 I used to go to London 5 to 7 times per year and stay there from a week up to over a month during summers, mostly hanging around and looking for records (hundreds of hours spent in the records & tapes exchange shops, especially the ones around Notting Hill). My very first trip to London was a major excitement, I had interest into what was going on – I attended numerous punk or proto-punk concerts – but I also bought records from the “just-finishing 70s era”. From that very first trip, some 35 years later, being such an excitement I can almost list by memory all the records I came back with : 2 Residents LPs, Chrome “Half machine lip moves” (still in my pantheon nowadays!), Suicide’s 1st album, Quiet Sun, the 2 Matching Mole LPs, some Keith Tippett stuff on Ogun, Centipede, albums from the then emerging industrial bands (Throbbing Gristle, Der Plan) etc; a large part of these bought at the very first Rough Trade shop. My evenings were spent in clubs; I could as well one evening go and see an obscure punk band, the day after attend a jazz gig (like, once, Ian Carr’s Nucleus at 100 Club in Oxford street) or a Robyn Hitchcock/Soft Boys show. These fantastic moments did forge the very eclectic musical tastes of my adult life. The end of the 70s was a very special period, the old times were still alive but it was obvious that a new area was coming. We all thought it would be better (creative, independent labels, DIY all around…) but sadly it wasn’t. The scene prior to punk can’t be considered as a whole, some segments really needed that mega kick from punk but others didn’t. Even in 1977 a band like Yes was still quite good (Going For The One is not a bad album) – it was only a couple of years later that the 70s survivors became dinosaurs by producing true ***t. Among other examples, the UK jazz scene was still fascinating. That hybrid period 1977-1980 was interesting & great.
Roger: Coincidentally, or not, the RIO movement started at around the same time. Were you into the prime movers back then? Or, like me, did you happen upon it later? Also have you seen the very informative and entertaining documentary on the scene released earlier this year?
Alain: I came to RIO in 1979 after I discovered (almost at the same time) Magma, Univers Zero & Art Zoyd. In October 1979 I attended the Festival des Musiques Nouvelles in Paris which was a revelation. From there I quickly went to Henry Cow and around 1980-1981 I bought the first ReR productions. At this period, the first wave of RIO bands (the Work, many of the Henry Cow offshoots) was very close in sound to post-punk artists (Lemon Kittens, Danielle Dax, Raincoats, Pere Ubu, Ludus). It was only later that each scene went its separate way; slowly leading to the current situation where the underground scene is atomised into multiple sub categories hardly communicating with each other; and therefore very weak when it comes to communication. I bought the DVD about RIO a few weeks back but I still need to watch it.
Roger: Presumably it must be a labour of love, and very time consuming? Do you do everything yourself, including the trips to the Post Office?
Alain: I am the musical director, the sales manager and also the humble employee doing the basic works – such as packing and making daily trips to the post-office etc. But I’m not alone, there is a graphic man preparing the covers & a sound engineer (Udi Koomran most of the time) doing the mastering. Both get paid for their work, though unfortunately not up to their talent… Yes, it’s somewhat time-consuming but it is still compatible with a normal life (a day job, a family). Things are very hectic during the first 2-3 weeks after the releases with really too much work over a short while. But for the rest of the year it’s mostly a matter of personal organisation: about 1 hour every evening (emails, packing) and 15 minutes every morning (post office). That’s why I try to have just the one batch of releases per year, releasing several projects at a time. My main regret is that I now have very little time for listening to music outside of SZ.
Roger: Do you search out bands that you want to release or do they approach you? I was thinking particularly of Corima whose fine album Quetzalcoatl is in my review pile; how did they link up with Soleil Zeuhl?
Alain: A the beginning of the label I had to search for bands and convince them. It is still the case for the reissues. But for active bands things have changed, nowadays most of the time they come to me. Corima was an exception, I contacted them after seeing them on YouTube and, by pure coincidence, it transpired that they had just finished recording their second album. They knew the label and enjoyed the releases, so the process was kinda easy!
Roger: Have you seen most of the acts on the label live? Which band left the biggest impression after a live show?
Alain: Of the active bands of the label I’ve only seen One Shot live, but many times, and Setna the once. The opportunities for playing live being rare for this kind of music these days, I unfortunately never had the occasion to see the others. I’m always impressed by the huge power & ease One Shot develop on stage – as you could hear at the recent RIO festival. As evidenced too on their “Live in Tokyo” CD.
Alain: Certainly not! I never imagined that 14 years ahead of 1998 SZ will have released 35 records and sold some nearly 25.000 copies. It started as a hobby, with the aim of issuing one CD per year! Now although the staff is no bigger the amount of work needed has greatly increased.
Roger: Which releases over those 15 years are you especially proud of?
Alain: Archaïa, the first one, has a special place of course – I remember the huge excitement when receiving the CDs, I almost didn’t sleep the night before! Afterwards, each one has its own history, whether technical or human with the bands. Releasing Eskaton was also a special moment, as I had bought their albums when being 20 or so and being the guy reissuing their stuff many years later was kinda fantastic. But the real achievement would be to have some contemporary SZ bands reach a wider audience….I would then be very proud to have contributed.
Roger: Unusually for a small independent label, you do not have a Facebook presence. Is there a reason for that, as I’m sure it would raise your profile?
Alain: I am not a geek, I came to computers at the age of 40 and I am very very suspicious towards Facebook, Twitter and the likes. The label has a website and as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. Facebook…I’m reluctant…probably I should.
Roger: Customers who buy CDs from you are given a free download sampler of some of the many fine offerings on the label. Have you thought of making this sampler more widely available, as it contains some fantastic music that deserves a wider audience and may well get you more customers?
Alain: Until the last few years it was easy to follow the label and buy every release as the rhythm was slow. Once SZ had gone past 20-25 productions, it became a necessity especially for new-comers to have a free compilation available. I though at first of a physical CD but finally found that it’s cheaper to have it on-line. Anyone asking for a download code gets it for free. Maybe the next step will be to drop the code and simply have a direct link on the web site. Work in progress here….
Roger: With major labels playing it extremely safe and former giants like EMI being swallowed up and the sales of CDs in steady decline it is left to the independents like yourselves to promote new music and discover new bands. How do you see the industry developing in the future?
Alain: I’m not optimistic. I think the music on offer from the majors will get more mainstream as time passes. By doing so they open the way for small labels but the huge consequence for the bands is the lack of promotion and the poor level of the sales. The major problem is the lack of curiosity of people; if something is not promoted people just ignore it and if by chance it crosses their path they think it’s amateur. Broad-minded people (and financially at-ease-enough for buying such non-essential objects such as CDs!) are a small minority and this small mostly Western crowd receives a HUGE mass of cultural solicitations – which makes choices inevitable. More dramatic is the fact that this small audience, are for the most part, no longer in their youth. If the younger generation does not appropriate a non-conformist musical attitude (whether avant-prog or anything else), then the future will be either uniform or completely fragmented.
Roger: I agree; the ever-dwindling number of music fans willing to take a risk is a bugbear of mine too. The name “Soleil Zeuhl” is an obvious reference to your love of Magma. What would you recommend a listener new to the French masters as an introduction to their alternative universe?
Alain: Any of their classic 70s albums: Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, Köhntarkösz, or Üdü Wüdü. My favourite is the latter one because of the monster Jannick Top track De Futura. How bass can rule a track!!
Roger: Indeed! Only John Wetton with King Crimson came close to Jannick’s power in the more well-known bands. Apart from Magma, what are your other favourite bands from across the eras?
Alain: Well….a lot! During the last 10 years I’ve been well into the electric Miles Davis period (1969-1975) with such GREAT albums as Agharta, Pangaea, Dark Magus, etc. Post-1973 King Crimson has always been with me – an album like “Red” is eternal, my personal hard rock anthem! In the 80s I loved Siouxsie & the Banshees and nowadays I still enjoy their poppy 80s sound with a Velvet Underground edge in their early days. In the 90s, Portishead was a revelation for me with their first album. Several categories I enjoy a lot: psychedelia (60s to contemporary – my last purchase is an album by German band Vibravoid), post 1967 jazz (all ECM, some Ninja Tune releases, Keith Tippett stuff, Canterbury etc. A recent discovery is the superb UK band Hidden Orchestra; Krautrock (a lot these days!! My last 2 purchases: the reissue of Günther Schickert’s 2nd LP Überfälli”, a great one, and the latest release of Electric Orange – a strongly recommended band), 20th century classical music (Arnold Schoenberg is a true must, Debussy & Bartók chamber works, Satie…) and a lot of different things from blues to folk-rock (Steeleye Span) to Exotica (Martin Denny, Yma Sumac) and much more. My next purchase (based on sound clips): the forthcoming Neil Young album with looooooong electric tracks – a straight guy that never dropped his ideals. The common link is subjective emotion with less and less musical boundaries as I get older (53 right now). I hate over-produced albums, audio compression and boneless mass market icons. Music must be the vehicle for something, it maybe a feeling, an idea, an original sound mixture or anything….but there must be something, it can’t be bare. Most of what is promoted now is – but it shouldn’t be, this is a cultural tragedy.
Roger: What are the next scheduled releases on Soleil-Zeuhl?
Alain: Although nothing can be certain, 3 releases are planned for March 2013: the second Setna album, the first album from the Arches (a Belarus band – an offshoot band from Rational Diet) & the reissue of the Alain Eckert album from 1981 (ex-Art Zoyd, with Serge Bringolf & Patricia Dallio).
Roger: It’s been good to have this short chat Alain, and we wish you and your label all the best for the future.